Tonkotsu ramen from Zool Zool restaurant in Mt Eden. Photo / Doug Sherring
Is hot ramen the best reason to leave the house on a cold night? Restaurant critic Kim Knight discovers Zool Zool, the mainstay of Mt Eden.
In their own words: Zool Zool is “a small
Izakaya noodle house and bar serving the finest Japanese ramen noodles and a selection of other traditional Japanese dishes”.
First impressions: Why is the friendly man who offered us a choice of high stools or regular chairs fumbling under our table? “Ah,” he said suddenly. “The hook is in the middle – or another on the wall next to you.” In Japan, you should never throw your bag on the floor because even the smallest places have coat hooks or high shelves with baskets to store personal rubbish. Thoughtful, kind and practical – every restaurant in Auckland should emulate it.
In the kitchen: Chefs Yuta Takahashi and Yuya Miyata are overseen by the founding owners of Zool Zool. In 2015, when Toru Hirae (Self) and Kazuya Yamauchi (Kazuya Restaurant) opened, they recognized that New Zealand palates were becoming as familiar with ramen as they were with sushi. In the years since, noodle soup has arguably established itself as the fresher cousin of the rice roll. If sushi fuels the Kiwi’s work week, ramen is a gateway to somewhere much more interesting.
On the floor: Our window seat put us front and center of foot traffic, but not of the servers. Many thanks to the man at the next table who noticed our distress and redirected the traffic. If you want your food to arrive in stages, make that clear from the start. We ordered a snack treat which arrived extremely quickly; our server just managed to block our ramen order.
The neighborhood: Why one suburb gets “village” and another simply “shops” is a question beyond the scope of this review. You’ll find Zool Zool towards the town end of the village known as Mt Eden, just next to Pasta & Cuore and up the road a bit from Time Out, the bookstore which is open until 9pm if you want to make a real night of it.
The menu: In winter, we slurp. You’re aiming for a ramen sniff that treats the springy wheat noodles and salty broth almost like wine tasting (a few years ago a winemaker told me to keep my mouth open while I sniffed – the olfactory double whammy totally changed my appreciation of his Syrah). The noodles and soup are homemade – a long, slow process. Opt for the “Zoolman” if you want a drier, more pasta-saucy version of the star attraction, or skip the ramen altogether in favor of Japan’s biggest snack hits: Gyoza, chicken karaage, takoyaki, et al.
Best Bite #1: In fact, I’ve swallowed Zool Zool’s soup twice in the last week. The first via a take-out order including a skewer of spicy calamari; the return trip providing just enough rest time to replicate the slightly dry chewing of hot food from a Japanese grocery store. I swear nothing I’ve eaten in the past two years has made me miss international travel more. Fresh from the kitchen, the squid was slightly more tender and coated in something slightly more gooey. Don’t judge me, but I preferred the previous version.
Best Bite #2: It is customary at this point when reviewing a ramen restaurant to tell you the difference between shio, shoyu, miso, tantan, etc. Better, I think, to order a highball and take your time with the menu, which carefully explains the different flavor profiles of ramen broth. Don’t skip the specials board (expect to see a bunch of chili options as it gets, well, colder) and consider the chicken paitan which I’m definitely going to, at 100%, order one day because it sounds phenomenal and is the most popular dish on the menu. Ha. Who am I kidding? Think ramen, order tonkotsu. It is broth made from rich pork bones; an elegantly milky bath cradling half a boiled egg and a handful of ears of wood, strips of bamboo shoots with a slightly fermented taste and a touch of lightly salted seaweed. Noodles are thinner, but sturdier, than spaghetti. Slurp-bite-chew-repeat. When you finally find a small amount of meat (order extra if you’re that way), it’s superfluous – your whole being has already become one with this porcine distillation.
The jury is still out: The “Sea Gem vegetable salad” was disappointing – five types of seaweed sounded intriguing, but I lost them in a tangle of lettuce and sesame dressing which was too salty for me.
On the side: Well-balanced meals include plenty of vegetables. Delicious meals include lots of crispy and fried vegetables. Carrot, mushroom, broccoli, kūmara et al were coated in crunch. Light, crispy and lots of chunks of dough at the bottom of the basket – reinvent that with a beer and maybe a small plate of wasabi and raw octopus instead of a bowl of ramen, and you might have room for dessert.
Dessert: See above. Better anticipation would certainly have included an order of sorbet and/or yuzu ice cream: Matcha, wasabi, salted caramel or – better yet – wrapped in mochi.
Perfect for: Warm your soul on a winter date.
How much: Quick snacks ($9.50 – $13.50), seafood ($15 – $22.50), vegetarian ($13.50 – $18.50), ramen ($19.50 – $24) , sweet ($7.50 – $9.80).
Zool Zool, 405 Mt Eden Rd, Mt Eden, Auckland. Telephone (09) 630 4445 zoolzool.co.nz
by Yvonne Lorkin
I’m a big fan of sipping something cool and beer while eating Japanese, and Zool Zool’s beer list is pretty compact, with three different sizes of Orion (tap, in a 2l jug or a tower 3l). I don’t know what a beer “tower” is, but I imagine you would want some buddies nearby to help you climb it. Plus, there’s Suntory pilsner, Kirin Ichiban-Shibori and Asahi Super Dry, two lagers from local Sawmill brewery and a “lite” beer. Could you possibly put a “zero” beer in the mix too, please Zool Zool? Thanks.
On the bubbly front, it’s pretty slim, just a $12 glass of prosecco, a peach bellini, or an $82 half-bottle of Taittinger, but the “Highball” list (whisky and soda) is long. , with a “Kaku”, a bourbon apple and cinnamon version, an Islay Scotch highball with smoked salt or a mixture of plum wine and ginger. But my favorite on the list is the porn star named “Minty Kūmara”. It’s a kind of mojito made with kūmara shochu, mint, and lime, and for $19, it’ll give you a good time. For $50 you can also treat yourself to a glass of Tarusky Kome Shouchu (made from rice) or Imo Shoushu, which is made from kūmara. Or for $28, try a glass of Yamazaki or Hibiki whiskey from Suntory.
I like how the wine list is not divided into “white” and “red” sections, but rather separated into fan areas. “Paitan Lovers” features a light and mineral Riff Pinot Grigio, a layered apple and lime Valli Riesling and Clos Marguerite Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. For the “Miso Buffs,” there’s reserve chardonnay and rosé from Rebecca Salmond’s Odyssey Wines, pinot noir from Clos Henri, and viognier from Staete Landt. “Tan tan Fans” (the ramen, not the Chinese dating app) have pinots from Aka Rua and Pegasus Bay, Argentinian Malbec and a Bordeaux blend from Newton Forrest, while “Tonkotsu Geeks” have a choice in the red wardrobe. Cabernet merlot Te Kahu from Craggy Range, tempranillo from Marques de Riscal, syrah from Guigal and shiraz from Sandalford. A decent list indeed.